My girlfriend just bought a new car, her first new car that wasn't a company car. She was excited about the prospect of a cute new vehicle parked in her driveway, something that would get better mileage and would better reflect her personality than a 4-year-old Mercury Sable ever could. The early shopping process was fun - narrowing down the field, discussing wants and needs, test driving the short list contenders - but when it came time to get some real numbers, we learned a few things about dealership practices in the new millennium.
New car shopping has changed a lot since I was selling cars in suburban Chicago 17 years ago, but some things are still the same. The internet has revolutionized the industry. Customers have access to more information than ever before and so dealers have to think of new ways to battle for every available dollar in the deal.
Between AOL Autos, Carfax reports, Edmund's True Market Values, Consumer Reports buyers guides and the like, it can't be easy. Most shoppers come in with MSRP, invoice and true cost numbers in hand. Most sales reps have figured out that the best way to secure a deal, therefore, is through good customer service. Price is important, but when you can call, email, text, or tweet 10 other dealers in the area for another quote, it's more about treating people right and getting them what they need at a fair price. Unfortunately, some salespeople still resort to the shenanigans that have given car sales a bad name for the past 50 years. Take a look at three dealers we visited during the process and you'll see what I mean.
Some background first. She wanted a car that was smaller than her Sable, a car that got good mileage, a car that was cute, and a car that would get her a payment of no more than $300 on a five year loan. No leases, no down payments. The car had to have an automatic transmission, Bluetooth for her cell phone, and a moonroof. While checking things out online, she decided to look more closely at a Honda Civic Hybrid, a Mazda3, and a Ford Fusion Hybrid. She did some calculations and found that the non-hybrid Fusion SE and the Honda Civic EX might be more manageable than the hybrids, but if the prices were reasonable, she might be able to stretch a bit for the hybrids to get the better mileage. She emailed a few dealers to get some quotes as a starting point. A nearby Honda dealer sent some very aggressive quotes on the Civics, quoting at least two thousand off sticker. The local Mazda dealer got back to her right away too and told her they had some leftover 2009 Mazda3 sedans she might like. When she wrote back for more information, it was the owner of the dealership himself who personally worked with Kristen when her original salesman wasn't available, phoning her and emailing back and forth with her several times. We decided to go out and drive the cars to see what she really thought of them.
The first place we stopped was OC Mazda of Huntington Beach. Actually Kristen went alone. They gave her a 2009 sedan and let her drive to a few errands. She came and picked me up in it. I was a bit shocked to see her driving a new car already, but she explained the situation and we headed back to the dealership. We talked with Dan, a big, jovial guy. He was friendly, knowledgeable and professional. He showed us everything we asked to see and pointed out some options that we might not have considered. He introduced us to Brian, a sales manager, and John, the owner. Everyone was glad we stopped in and assured us that they would do everything they could to earn our business. They didn't push or try to make us feel like we needed to buy on the spot in order to get a fantastic deal. After discussing colors and options, we realized she would need to look at the 2010 models, but we didn't have time that night. We told them we had to make a few other stops over the next few days and they jokingly booed when we mentioned a Honda dealer was on the list. We told them we'd be in touch.
Our second stop was Ford of Huntington Beach the next day. Although pricier than the Mazda3 she was also considering, the Fusion Hybrid held a certain appeal for being a grown-up car with a green edge and a feel-good Patriotic nameplate. Todd came out and greeted us and showed us the few Hybrids they had in stock. The dealer was having a red tag sale for the 4th of July. Of the five hybrids on the lot, most were marked down about $2,000, but one was marked at $5,000 off sticker. That made it $25,990, or about five grand more than the Mazda3, which at $18,000-$22,000, was right in the sweet spot of my girlfriend's budget. It was the right color and had the right options even. Perfect.
We drove the car around town and Todd was great. He knew the car and the area well and we immediately hit it off. The car was nice, but it didn't push the same hot buttons that the Mazda had. Sure it was economical to operate, but the price meant it was quite a stretch. It would depend somewhat on the appraisal of Kristen's trade, a 2005 Mercury Sable GS with 70,000 miles and a clean bill of health. We went inside and waited for a manager to give us some figures.
When Todd returned, we realized that the $3,000 they were offering wasn't going to close the gap enough to make it work. Todd brought in his manager, Frank. A really energetic guy with an Italy tattoo peeking above his collar, Frank gave us the straight scoop and said he couldn't get the numbers anywhere near where she wanted to be. She needed to put some money down to bring it into her range. As almost an afterthought, he mentioned that a regular Fusion might be a better option. It was significantly cheaper and still got really good mileage. He mentioned that the regular Fusion was a steal, at "Seven or eight grand off," which he told us was doable right then.
It wasn't a car that was on Kristen's short list anymore, because she wasn't even that impressed with the hybrid after driving it. We said we'd consider it, though. After all, seven grand off a Fusion with the options she needed would run around $13,000. That would be one hell of a deal, but only if she actually liked the car. We thanked them and said we'd keep them in mind as we continued shopping.
We left and stopped at Norm Reeves Honda just down the street. Two different salespeople approached us and after talking to them for a few minutes we realized that they didn't have any Hybrids. They tried to show her every other car on the lot, but when she ended up telling them the options she wanted, the one guy said she had to get a Civic EX if she wanted a moonroof. Nothing else had the roof, including the hybrid. It wasn't a very pleasant experience. The guys weren't very friendly and were saying "No" a lot. We told them we'd go to their sister store in Cerritos to check out the hybrids anyhow. After all, if the price was right, maybe the roof wasn't really that important.
When we got to the Cerritos location, a helpful rep named George came over and welcomed us. We got to the heart of the matter pretty quickly and said we'd like to drive the hybrid to see if it was something she wanted to consider further. We weren't so concerned about price because we already had a pretty good quote to work off of already, and I happened to know one of the service writers at their sister store down the street who could give us pricing as well. George immediately grabbed some keys to give us a test drive, but when Kristen reached for her license, she realized she had left it at the Ford dealer. We both searched frantically to no avail. As the initial alarm subsided it was replaced by anger.
Nobody from the Ford dealer had contacted her to say the license was there. She immediately called to ask about it they said they didn't have it at the front desk. They also informed us that the salesman we had talked to wasn't there and neither was the manager. They would leave a message for both of them. This was Saturday, July 4. They didn't seem to think it was a big deal. Kristen was a bit shaken and concerned about not having her ID, but the gal at Ford said it happens a lot and they would track it down.
Meanwhile George said it was no problem and let her drive the Hybrid anyway. She composed herself long enough to drive it but found the driving experience kind of odd, what with the engine cutting out and restarting occasionally as hybrids do. The car didn't impress her that much so it would come down to whether or not she could get some fantastic pricing. George basically said that they weren't dealing, which seemed odd because we already had a quote well below sticker. We left telling George we would check with our friend and get back to him if the numbers lined up. For now we wanted to get to the Ford dealer to check on her license.
We weren't able to get to the Ford dealer that night, but we did go first thing Sunday morning. We stopped by and saw Todd, who said it was the first he was hearing of it. He checked at the front desk and in his files but found nothing. He said it might have been mailed out when it was first discovered but the gal at the front desk couldn't confirm that. He said he would talk to Frank when he got in on Monday morning. He told us he'd get back to us one way or the other. When she didn't hear anything Monday morning Kristen called back. Todd wasn't around and Frank wasn't answering his page. I decided to call myself and told them to connect me with Frank. They said he wasn't picking up his page so I said it was an emergency. He picked up right away and when I asked if he had found the license he said it was the first he was hearing of it but he would check and get back to us. I told him I'd rather wait while he checked. He checked and said it wasn't there. He recommended Kristen go to the DMV and get a replacement. He never offered to pay the fee for the replacement but did apologize.
A couple of days later we were at the Mazda dealer driving two different versions of the Mazda3. Although Dan wasn't there he had his associate Joe prepped to work with us. Joe did a great job too, letting Kristen drive two different 2010 Mazda3 models. The question was whether the hatch with its larger engine and slightly better amenities was worth an extra two grand over the sedan. After driving both of them Kristen decided it wasn't. She picked the sedan and we wrote up the deal. Francisco handled the paperwork and we were relieved that through the whole process, none of the numbers changed. Everyone was just as friendly as the first time we had gone in, and although they didn't have the car that night, they promised it would be there from their Tustin location the next day. It went quickly and smoothly and we walked out feeling glad that we had met these guys.
The next day, just as they had promised, Kristen's new car was all set by the time we got there. It had been driven over from Tustin, filled with gas, and fully detailed. Dan handled the delivery and did a great job of explaining all of the features and controls. He even pulled out all of the books and entered all of the pertinent information. He showed us around the rest of the dealership and pointed out the service department, the Wahoo's counter being built, the free gourmet coffee stand and the free wifi workstations. It's a brand new facility and it is very impressive. It's the kind of place you wouldn't mind hanging out in if you had to bring your car in for service. Back at the car Dan even helped Kristen pair her Blackberry to the car's system. Now she can just say "dial" and the stereo volume lowers as the car asks for a number to call. It's really an amazing system. Kristen absolutely loves using this feature so don't be surprised if you get a call from her as she shows it off to everyone in her phonebook.
One last thing Dan handed me as we headed out was a sticker for MY car. It's just like the one Kristen has in her window. It allows us to stop in any time to get a free carwash. I think Mazda, and the HB guys in particular, really have this whole modern-day selling thing down pat.